Magnetic Island North Queensland
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A young koala's beach adventure

January 12th 2005
The Cry of the Curlew

Chick with adult curlew Perhaps, more than any other impression, the strange and shrill cry of the curlew is the most distinctive of Magnetic Island. Now, with the permission of author and wildlife carer Tania Scheutt and artist Robyn Schae, Magnetic Times is delighted to reproduce "The Cry of the Curlew": their very informative brouchure on this iconic Island bird.

The haunting, eerie, mournful sounds heard at night on Magnetic Island are the cries of the Bush Stone-curlew. Stone-curlews belong to family Burhinidae represented throughout the world by nine species in two genera. Two species are found in Australia, one from each genus: the Bush Stone-curlew (Burhinus grallarius) and the Beach Stone-curlew (Esacus neclectus).

The Bush Stone-curlew, also known as Bush Thick-knee, Southern Stone-curlew, Southern Stone-plover, Weeloo, Willaroo, Angelbird and Scrub curlew, was once found across much of Australia, except for very arid regions and heavily forested areas. It is now rare to totally extinct in closely settled parts of Australia and dwindling in numbers elsewhere. In some states it is listed as vulnerable or threatened.

Ground-feeding, ground-nesting woodland birds that are larger than 500 grams are the bird species most endangered in Australia and the Bush Stone-curlew fits every one of these criteria. This bird is the emblem of Moorabool Shire in Victoria because Moorabool is local Aboriginal for 'the place of the curlew' or 'the voice of the curlew'. But for the last 50 years curlews have not been seen there.

Identification
Bush Stone-curlews are nocturnal, cryptic and very well camouflaged. They are fairly large ground-feeding, ground-nesting woodland birds. Adult total length is 55-60cm, wingspan 80-105cm and weight 550-750 grams. They stand at around 50cm and when sitting down are about 30cm high. The dark grey bill is 5-6 cm long, thick and straight. Curlews have large yellow eyes, a long neck, camouflaged grey-brown upper parts with bold black streaks and cream under parts. Their long legs are thin and delicate with thick knees which they fold backwards when sitting. Their three front toes show traces of webbing but there is no hind toe.

Ecologically they behave like woodland birds while technically they are classified as waders and therefore possibly do not breed until they are 2-3 years old. There is no known way of sexing Bush Stone-curlews externally; so far a blood test is the safest and most reliable method.


Magnetic's most distinctive creature


Behaviour
Curlew presence is most often indicated by their wailing calls after dusk. They are most active from dusk to early morning and are particularly active on moonlit nights. Their eerie cry is persistent during mating and nesting time or when rain is about. Those wailing, screaming, haunting cries signify disturbance, danger, communication, territorial disputes or the loss of an offspring or partner.

Curlews can fight fiercely for various reasons, pinning the opponent to the ground, attacking it on the neck, the back, between the wings, or grabbing it by the tail and swirling it around. At times they kneecap their opponent.

They fly only when frightened or to gain better feeding ground or to socialise. They are shy and watchful, moving slowly with their heads outstretched. They run a short distance, stop, peer and flick their tails then repeat the process again and again. Their resting positions are standing on one leg, sitting or lying stretched flat.

On Magnetic Island the behaviour pattern of Bush Stone-curlews has changed dramatically in recent years. Lowland areas are mostly residential and development is taking over their habitats with greater activity and disturbance from humans and domestic animals. Consequently they now depend on friendly property owners, residents and visitors.

Habitat
During the day curlews normally shelter on the ground in lightly timbered habitats among fallen tree debris where their mottled plumage forms camouflage and the open terrain offers good visibility. They need this type of habitat with sparse grass cover and abundant fallen tree litter for feeding and roosting. Curlews are usually not found in grasses higher than themselves. Some native grasses do grow tall but not densely and this allows the birds to see predators. Curlews mainly inhabit lowland open forest, woodland and sandy creek beds but they are also seen on golf courses, in parks and many other locations.

Food
Curlews eat a variety of foods such as crustaceans, grasshoppers, spiders, lizards, centipedes, snails, small frogs, small reptiles, ground beetles, crickets, caterpillars, seeds and small fruits. They eat only what is on the surface and do not scratch for food.

Breeding
Magnetic Island curlews breed between July and February. Breeding birds strongly defend their territory but at other times of the year they are non-territorial. Nests are consistently located in relatively open areas on bare ground, often surrounded by a few sticks, leaves and small stones. This enables the sitting bird to achieve good ground vision in all directions. The same nesting sites are re-used in successive years but nests may be abandoned if surrounding grass becomes too tall or disturbance is too severe.

Curlews usually lay two eggs directly on the ground. These are mottled grey-brown the size of hen eggs. They are laid 24-48 hours apart and incubation begins with the laying of the last egg. Occasionally two females lay their eggs together, making a nest of 3 or 4 eggs. Parents take turns in sitting, with the off-duty bird usually standing guard nearby. Incubation takes 22-28 days. Parents can hear chirps through the eggshells and they make soft clucking noises to the chicks.

Offspring
Curlew chicks can walk almost as soon as they hatch; and when the parents eat the tell-tale eggshells as a calcium supplement, the chicks are led away from the nest to a more protected area. Newly hatched curlew chicks weigh 26-34 grams and are covered with thick pale grey down and are boldly marked with dark brown to black stripes.

Parents communicate with their young by making low clucking noises. Sometimes dissecting food, they then pass it directly to the chicks by dropping it in front of them, clucking and stepping back. This continues until the young are almost fully grown, except when breeding begins again, often when chicks are only 3 weeks old. Pairs behave in different ways in these situations: some allow their young to remain, feeding them until the new clutch hatches; others viciously chase them away, forcing them to try to fend for themselves.

Two clutches are common and even 4 clutches may be produced in the same season, usually after the loss of very young chicks. It is common to abduct or adopt offspring from other pairs and raise them with their own. The last brood remains with the parents until breeding begins in the next season.

Curlews are sedentary and can live to 30 years. Most pairs stay together in the same territory throughout life. Young curlews may be unable to establish territories because all of the available habitat is already taken by adult pairs. This is particularly apparent on Magnetic island where pockets of 20 or more birds can be found throughout the year.

Predators and other Dangers
On the mainland major threats are foxes, feral cats and dogs and roaming domestic animals. More wildlife is harmed near rubbish tips than elsewhere because of the populations of feral animals there. Only goannas and some large snakes are known natural predators of adult curlews, while young curlews also fall victim to hawks, kites, eagles, kookaburras, owls, crows, currawongs and other carnivores. When approached, all curlews, even the newly hatched, either run or freeze - lying flat on the ground, head and neck outstretched, relying on camouflage for protection. Therefore it is truly difficult to see camouflaged eggs, chicks or breeding adults and at times they are accidentally killed by lawnmowers or slashers. As young curlews cannot fly until they are about 50 days old, they are vulnerable and most parents distract potential threats with dramatic displays. Adults will also hiss, grunt and growl loudly with wings outstretched, tail fanned and erect or they will run from the threat.

Most road-kills occur at dawn and dusk, in overcast conditions and during or after rain. Curlews, including the young, frequently run onto the road and under streetlights to pick up insects or sit on the warm bitumen.

On Magnetic Island curlew numbers are rapidly declining due to habitat loss and fragmentation, road-kills, disturbance from domestic animals, both natural and feral predators and food shortages. There are so many odds against them.

With some consideration, we can save these strange birds that fascinate almost every person who stays a night on Magnetic Island and hears the cry of the curlew.

Researched, written and published by Tania Schuett, Magnetic Island native bird carer since 1980.


The Cry of the Curlew
 
20 comments
 
Vicki Walker
January 25th 2005
The poor curlew has plenty to cry about. Especially when humans chop lots of trees down because "We are sick of raking up leaves." An inner-city rabbit warren complex would suit such persons.
 
Irene Hay
March 5th 2005
Could not agree more! I have no idea why these types of people even bother to come to MI.
 
Judy Carvell
April 26th 2005
It has been 5 years since I left Townsville and nothing seems to have been done about the plight of the Curlew. Thank goodness the Island has Tania Schuett and friends to help these beautiful birds. Has the cat problem been solved yet? Tania I would love to hear from you sometime.
 
Thelma & Ian Soper
July 18th 2005
Hi, About two years ago my husband and I came out into our small backyard in Cairns North Queensland to find a pair of Curlews with their very young chicks. Over the months the chicks grew into adults and we watched as the parents chase them until they left. Then the adult parents disappeared and to our great sadness we thought we had lost they company. But, a couple of months later in walked a curlew couple, we, of course did not know wether these were the original couple or one of the chicks back with a partner. Now my reason for this email is, today we, with great delight walked into our backyard to find that this couple had decided to nest, one egg laid today. We do not do anything different, because the bird are here.We decided that if they wanted to live in our backyard they would have to get use to us doing out yard work. We use our back patio all the time and they use it as well. Somedays we are having a meal and they will just walk up and sit at the end of the patio with us. Most mornings we get up to find they are still on the patio. Is this unusual for the Curlews to nest in a small back yard in a residental area and is there anything we should or should not do now they are nesting.
Thank you and Regards
Thelma and Ian
 
Mary Regts
November 27th 2005
Dear Editor,

Sorry, I don't have any advice, but very interested to hear about your curlews. I came across your site looking for info on them generally as I was born in Wiluna, W.A. which seems to have been named after the Weeloo. A Weeloona hotel remained for some years - it does not seem to be known how and when the spelling changed and was anglicised. Possibly the aboriginal name Weeloo and 'na' maybe meaning place. 'Weeloo' was said to be from its cry.

Wiluna is a stony place though large lakes in vicinity, mostly salt lakes, otherwise it would be hard to imagine wading birds there. Wiluna was also formerly known as Lake Way. Maybe there are other soaks, something to do with the artesian bores. It is over half a century since I lived there.

Does your Council have a policy to keep cats in at night? If not, it might be a long term project to work on. I am not anti-cat, we have 2, and many birds since native trees were planted to attract them. Most birds disappeared from area when we first came here to suburban Perth, not because of the cats but because of the spraying for Argentine ants. The cats do not seem to suffer from being in at night.

Yours sincerely,

Mary Regts.
 
michelle white
January 2nd 2006
i have lived here in kelso townsville for two years now & have often wondered what the eerie call was it sounded so often like a bird in trouble& thought it had been caught by a cat (i too have two cats but are housebound at all times & have been for 8 years now they are fine)
however after finding out what what these calls came from ,we were driving home from our new years eve party to see them in our street 2 or three of them . i find the wildlife is fasinating
 
Lenore McSherry
September 29th 2008
Hello, We have got 2 curloos in our backyard in Gulliver, Townsville at the moment, have been there for a couple of months now. There is 2 eggs also in the back yard from the curloos. I think it is great to have them there. We feel priveliged to have them here with us. I am really excited to have the chicks hatch.
 
melyn
November 13th 2008
i am amazed! actually i'm searching this kind of bird in the net since last wk. my husband and i found two of this here in front of 84 love lane mundingburra, qld. i asked my husband that time to take a photo, but we had only mobilephone that time and it's hardly get a nice shot because of it's brownish and grayish color. wow, it's fantastic that i'd seen that bird
 
Keith Vass
March 2nd 2009
Why don't you orgment your article with an icon which when clicked would yield the sound of these birds in all it's haunting lament?
 
Pauline
September 6th 2009
I live near basalt Gully in Mareeba. The little girl next door was frightened by the curlews calls, so I started researching on the net. What a fascinating bird they are. I have also seen them at Mission Beach & Palm Cove. They are attracted to the lights for the insects.
 
Col Chamings
October 10th 2009
It has been a while since the last post so I thought that I would put in my two bits regarding the culews. I live about 6ks SE of Mourilyan (10 ks South of Innisfail) and I am happy to say that we are fortunate enough to have both species nesting in our area. Being from Adelaide originally, the call of the bush curlew startled us when first encountered as it sounded as if a young child were crying but even more pronounced. It took a while to find out the cause and have felt comfortable since being enlightened. I can honestly say that there are literally hundreds in the area of both species and thank goodness there is very little "road kill". Quite often during the daylight hours we see them and they are, although wary, reasonably friendly. We have a border collie cross dog and they are not disturbed by him and visa versa. They are a very social bird that is very willing to share their habitat with many other species.
For those not aware the bird plays a significant roll in Island and aboriginal folklore and the belief is that they can be "sent" to aquire certain bodily parts of a person leading to their eventual demise. The "Featherfoot" (witchdoctor) of these peoples is believed to have the power to have the curlew call upon the intended and do their bidding. They are also believed by these cultures, that when passing, cause the dead to stand. So there are many stories regarding these birds and no doubt many more.
 
Karen Trannore
October 30th 2009
I was brought up in North Queensland as a child, and lived in the small town of Gordonvale. I would hear the cry of the Curlew at night and would end up in my mothers bed, absolutely terrified. My aboriginal childhood friends would tell me stories of the Curlew how they were spirits of the dead coming to get you. So many a sleepless night I would be buried deep beneath the bed covers. I haven't lived in NQ for such a long time, even though ventured home on a few occassions when I had the feeling I needed to be there. I work at the Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre as an officer, and to my surprise have noticed that there are a family of 3 Bush Stone - Curlews living within the razor wire of our centre. They turned up out of nowhere and have made Gorrie their home. They live close to our "Cultural Centre"where offenders meet on a daily basis to study their culture, dance and paint. I would like to gather as much information regarding the aboriginal stories regarding the Curlew and pass this on to the staff at the Cultural Centre. I was waiting alone out in the carpark of the centre at dusk a week ago, when a bird flew over my right shoulder and landed gracefully in front of me not more than a metre away. I recognised it as one of the curlews from inside the centre. It turned and looked at me and wailed it's haunting cry. I feel I was being visited by a "Spirit" someone who was close to me to reassure me about my family roots and a decision I was unsure on making in the near future. With tears that contained my spirit of happier times I made my decision. Thank you Curlew
 
Emily claney
May 20th 2010
thanks i needed that formy sose project
 
nancy trindall
September 3rd 2010
hi, we have a pair of curloo in our garden,they have had two lots of babies of one each time .the first we didn`t notice until it wasn`t there .the 2nd one we notice one bird missing and looked for days only to nearly walk on her sitting on one egg.waited for weeks for it to hatch.the first night it hatched we were late home and we picked up mum and dad in the head lights and the baby laying on the road in front of us .my partener got out of the car and pick the baby up and moved it.we are on a living on a cane farm and when they cut cane here they leave the tractors parked here ,so there is a lot of coming and going .i was worried about the baby ,the curloo moved into the cane and have come back to thier old spot but so far i haven`t seem the baby.how old are the babies when they get kick out of home ,or do they leave them on thier own a lot when they are around six weeks old.really sad if this one has lost its life,we took photos of them.would like hear more about them .regards nabcy
 
Mark
April 29th 2011
Got one here at a mine site in Blackwater it has become my friend and follows me everywhere the first time I heard its wail I was a little freaked out its such a shrill call. Iv grown to love the little fella and would be devestated if it was cleaned up by one of the road train trucks.
 
alan clark
August 24th 2011
hi all
On way back to magi and looking forward to the sounds of the curlew at night, the house we all stay at have 2 familys one front and one back yards. The fun begins when we all sit around after dinner on the patio and the 2 curlews come from both directions and the stand off begins with jumping and their antics towards each other, again what a beautiful bird hope we keep seeing them and dont take them for granted as we humans then to do cheers al
 
Veronica
September 17th 2011
For the last couple of years we have had a pair of curlews nesting in our front garden in Kirwan. At first it was annoying putting up with their cry at night and all hours of the morning, but when chicks hatched it was great. Then when they layed again and chicks hatched, to our shock, parients chased away older siblings! My family and I were devastated. I assume the same adult curlews have been nesting since. They survived cyclone Yasi, but chicks didn't. Have layed again in our garden, 2 chicks. Day after they hatched they left, as usual. Parents came back 1 week later, no chicks. Two days later only one curlew remains. The sound he or she makes is terrible, like a mournful cry, but quiet, not like his/her usual sound, where the whole neighbour can hear. This happens day and night and i can't do anything to help. It is so sad to see this curlew alone. Does anyone know if they will find a partner again?
 
Julie Koot
November 8th 2011
We have had a pair of curlews nesting in our park - we have no neighbours - we have a lovely area in Edmonton- Cairns. I had to flag down the council man because they mow the park every wednesday as I didnt want them to kill the chicks. He was happy to take a wide birth around them. They appear to be happy, however it really astounds me how stupid human beings can be - People take there dogs to this park and they allow them to chase the Culews, so I have had many words to these visitors! I try very hard to protect them. I have may bird species in our garden and they bring much joy to my life.
 
Mike Banks
June 28th 2012
It is hard to control feral and domestic animals on the mainland, but on Islands such as the reef and Bay islands of Queensland there is no reason why domestic and feral animals can not be restricted, or better still, prohibited. Feral animals can be removed with the aid of shooting and trapping--a more humane approach than baiting, and one more target specific. Baits are indiscriminate killers, and often devastate local wildlife as a by-kill.

Unless one can ascribe a dollar value to the animals--there is not much incentive to care for them. Unless the locals get seriously involved and compel councils to take action, nothing will be done to curtail inappropriate or unrestrained development or the destruction of wildlife habitat.

I wish it were otherwise--but while political campaign contributions are legal, not seen as the bribes they are--developers and other business interests will be the first consideration.

My curlews live in my Cairns backyard--and we take care not to disturb them. I do fear for their safety though. They are very endearing creatures who come under our verandah when the rain gets too intense for them.
 
Jodie Kennedy
October 10th 2012
We have just recently returned home from a camping trip to find eggs layed on the grass from curlews....our 8 year old is amazed by it and asks lots of questions. The birds are very protective and growl when we are anywhere near them....we obviously are trying to stay as much out of the way as we can but I think its just great that they have decided to choose our yard as their place to lay their eggs :-) I was wondering though about the attachment of these birds to spirits as I have heard something about that in the past. Can anyone shed any light on the spiritual aspect???


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